Forum Addresses Budget Cuts, Furlough

Posted: October 1, 2009 at 1:04 am, Last Updated: September 30, 2009 at 4:31 pm

By Dave Andrews

Senior Vice President Maurice Scherrens and Provost Peter Stearns hosted a town hall budget update forum Tuesday morning in the Johnson Center Cinema.

The forum was part of Mason’s intent to maintain a consistent level of open communication among all university administrators during this time of economic uncertainty. Both Scherrens and Stearns wanted to directly address Virginia’s budget situation and how it will affect Mason students and employees.

“The bite we’re talking about now is compounded by the fact that the state never fully recovered the funding cuts that were imposed earlier in the decade during the previous crises,” Stearns said. “That’s what makes this situation, and our future prospects, particularly challenging.”

Approximately 15 percent, or $17.6 million of the university’s budget will be cut in this next fiscal year. This percentage is roughly the same among all other state schools in Virginia.

Scherrens listed strategies to offset the large budget reduction. The most notable were the $8.6 million the university is receiving in federal stimulus money, and $2.5 million of additional tuition revenue from this year’s unexpected enrollment increase. The utility budget was also adjusted to save $700,000.

Most of the forum’s discussion centered on the remaining $5.3 million in budget reductions that will somehow need to be absorbed within the university.

“We do not want to shift the burden to the students through large tuition increases,” Scherrens said. “At this time, [Mason] is not considering a mid-year tuition increase. However, significant tuition increases are very likely for 2011 and 2012.”

One of the main philosophies at Mason is to remain “committed to unit empowerment.” Each individual unit at Mason will make budget cut decisions rather than the university imposing broad restrictions across the board.

However, a furlough for every state employee appears certain. Many alternatives to a furlough were presented to the state, but all were rejected.

A furlough is a temporary, unpaid leave of absence. The exact date for Mason’s one-day furlough is still unknown at this stage, but Scherrens said it will likely happen sometime between now and May 2010.

Every salaried state employee will be required to comply with the furlough and for the same amount of time. But Mason officials are exploring the state’s flexibility on giving its employees the option to spread their one-day furlough into two half days.

May 28 has been identified as a likely date, but the university wishes to use a different day that would have less impact on university operations and student class time.

The furlough does not affect adjunct or wage employees. Nor will it will have any effect on employee benefits.

Scherrens was very candid when the conversation turned to layoffs. “There is no guarantee that there will not be layoffs here,” he said. “However, there is no university mandate to lay off a certain number of people to reduce our workforce. This is a decision to be made within each unit of the university.”

Stearns addressed the concerns of salary increases, saying that though he was not optimistic about increases next year, he would be “very, very surprised if there isn’t a return to salary increases by 2012.”

To diffuse any possible concerns about the high level of construction at Mason (costing the state roughly $5 million per week) Scherrens pointed out that nearly all of the money used for campus construction had been approved by the state years ago.

He went on to say that due to the slow market, Mason has gotten better deals in construction costs, resulting in even higher quality facilities than anticipated.

“The best thing that’s going on right now is that we will come out of this economic downturn with some great facilities that we otherwise would not have if we had made the same decisions in this current economy,” Scherrens said.

“Construction is great for morale. Things are moving. Though the economy is tough right now, our campus looks as vibrant as ever,” he said.

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